March right in

Special to The Times

California is broke, Tax Day is just weeks away and the holiday bills have started to arrive. For many L.A. residents, March may not seem like the best month to consider soaking up the city's cultural scene -- especially when a couple of museum passes can cost as much as a tank of gas at a discount pump.

Before hibernating behind a stack of past-due notices, however, consider this: There are plenty of opportunities to hit the top cultural institutions without spending a dime. March has at least 12 days of free access to more than a dozen attractions around town, from the Autry Museum of Western Heritage to the Huntington Library. All that's required is a flexible schedule, a little tenacity and a willingness to reveal your ZIP Code to a stranger.

Say the words "free" and "museum" and many people think of the Getty Center, which hasn't charged admission (with the exception of a $5 parking fee) since it opened in 1998. It's a nifty little secret that many local fee-based museums also open their doors free of charge on certain days.

"It invites a whole new audience. We definitely see more students and families," said Kirsten Schmidt, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA's main gallery is free to the public the second Tuesday of the month, although its special ticketed exhibitions, such as the current ones on "Ansel Adams at 100" and "Sargent in Italy," are not. Attendance spikes about 75% on free Tuesdays, compared with other Tuesdays, according to Schmidt.

Weather permitting, visitor numbers also swell at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens on the first Thursday of the month, when the San Marino property waives its regular $10 entrance fee. On a recent free Thursday, the parking lot was full within an hour of the library's noon opening, and the Rose Garden Tea Room had been booked for a month. The galleries and garden paths were teeming with a mix of tourists, boisterous school groups and well-dressed women headed to afternoon tea.

The crowds didn't bother Mary Clarke, a retired nurse from Tujunga, who was checking out the succulents in the desert garden with a friend visiting from Seattle. "I love it here," said Clarke, who visits about four times a year. "It's $8.50 for a senior. I couldn't afford to come as often if I had to pay."

At other museums, free days are hit or miss in terms of attendance. The Family Discovery Gallery at the Autry Museum is usually packed with school groups every second Tuesday of the month, when it doesn't charge its $7.50 fee. But elsewhere in the building, the mood is serene and visitors can expect to have the cowboy displays, Native American art galleries, and firearms collections to themselves.

The Japanese American National Museum, Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits and Geffen Contemporary had similar hear-a-pin-drop environments on their recent free days. At the downtown Geffen, Greg Boyer was one of the handful of people checking out the futuristic car designs of J Mays, on display through Sunday. Boyer, a telecommunications technician visiting from Atlanta, said he was disappointed there wasn't more of a social scene. "I was expecting it to be a little more fun since it's open late -- you know, something of a wine-and-cheese type event," he said.

Perhaps the speediest free cultural experience can be found at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. The museum's Web site notes that visitors may enter free during its last 15 minutes of operation and ignore the suggested $4 donation. Says employee Lori Matsumoto: "We're a free museum. We accept donations. We don't accept donations in the last 15 minutes that we're open." If there was a motive behind creating that tiny window of opportunity, she added, "we've forgotten it."


Free museum days

Arboretum of Los Angeles County

301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia (626) 821-3222

Free: 3rd Tuesday of the month, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Autry Museum of Western Heritage

4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park (323) 667-2000

Free: Thursday, 4-8 p.m.; 2nd Tuesday of the month, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Craft and Folk Art Museum

5814 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 937-4230

Free: 1st Wednesday of the month, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

1151 Oxford Road, San Marino (626) 405-2141

Free: 1st Thursday of the month, noon- 4:30 p.m.

Japanese American National Museum

369 1st St., Los Angeles (213) 625-0414

Free: Thursday, 5-8 p.m.; 3rd Thursday of the month, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

Long Beach Museum of Art

2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach (562) 439-2119

Free: 1st Friday of the month, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

L.A. County Museum of Art

5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 857-6000

Free: 2nd Tuesday of the month, noon- 8 p.m.

MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary

152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles (213) 626-6222

Free: Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 626-6222

Free: Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Museum of Jurassic Technology

9341 Venice Blvd., Culver City (310) 836-6131

Free: after 7:45 p.m. Thursday, after 5:45 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Museum of Neon Art

501 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles

(213) 489-9918

Free: 2nd Thursday of the month, 5-8 p.m. (Note: no free day in March because of a changing exhibit; free days resume in April.)

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles (213) 763-3466

Free: 1st Tuesday of the month, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Pacific Asia Museum

6 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena (626) 449-2742

Free: 3rd Saturday of the month, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits

5801 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 934-7243

Free: 1st Tuesday of the month, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

UCLA Hammer Museum

10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood (310) 443-7000

Free: Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

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